Saturday, June 21, 2008


I've been working on a novel, and preparing to attend a summer writers' conference in July. A few years ago, I spent a couple weeks in a workshop guided by writers Tim O'Brien and Amy Hempel. They were good teachers, a well as writers. During my stay, Tim line-edited seventy-five pages of my manuscript. He was very supportive, but ruthless about cutting extraneous "stuff" that didn't ring true, or failed to move the story forward. It was a bracing experience. He was the same way about his own work. Before his reading one evening, he showed me his copy of "The Things They Carried," which was already published, and the printed pages were filled with his own handwritten corrections and changes, some major.

Hempel and O'Brien were opposites on the surface, but formed quite a good teaching team. What do these writers have in common? A woman who went to Sarah Lawrence, and a man who went to Vietnam? An obsession with truth. Strange as it seems, these writers of fiction struggled to create truth in their work-- and the way truth plays with imagination, memory, and myth.

O'Brien says there is "story-truth" (the truth of fiction) and "happening-truth" (the truth of fact or occurrence), and "story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth."

If you haven't read any of Amy Hempel's short stories, do so immediately. Her "Collected Stories" came out in 2006, and can be purchased here. An especially good place to start is the frequently anthologized story, "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried."

If you haven't read Tim O'Brien's work, you should. "Going After Cacciato" (which won the National Book Award in 1979) and "The Things They Carried" are contemporary classics. "Things" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger. For more O'Brien and his work, click this link (you will need to sign in to the New York Times) HERE.

Buy Tim O'Brien's books here.


David Lasky, Esq. said...

Bob, I look forward to reading your novel. But no hurry. Take your time and get it how you want it.

I'm about to embark on my first graphic novel, and am beginning to look at prose writers as a guide for the structure and tenacity required in this endeavor. It can't merely be a "really long comic book". It going to have to follow what happens in prose novels to some degree if it's gonna be a satisfying read...

David Lasky, Esq. said...

Also: My grandmother rests (with two aunts and an uncle) in the cemetery where Al Jolson is buried.